“I am being held hostage by my kids,” I said in a message to a friend when she asked how I was doing. It seemed funnier than saying I was miserable or bored or resentful — which was also true.
My oldest is 8 and my twins are 6. I was sitting on a curb, watching my kids pedal their bikes, and listening to their requests for snacks. They had wanted to go to the school parking lot near our house to ride their bikes, so there we were. They didn’t need me per se; the lot is quiet and safe and they are very capable bike riders, but they are not very good decision makers in the event they get hurt or have to deal with an unexpected incident. My kids are old enough to do a lot of things independently, but are not old enough to not need supervision.
My kids usually ride on our neighborhood cul-de-sac where I can easily see them from the front porch and can hear them from anywhere in the house; the assumption is that I will always show up if they call for me. This is not a bad or unfair assumption—of course, I will always be there for my kids. But this assumption combined with their tender ages of 8 and 6 means if one of them fell and got hurt at the parking lot, said injured rider would likely lie on the ground, cry, and call for me whether I was in earshot or not. My other two children would keep riding as if nothing was wrong because, of course, Mama will handle it.
I am constantly on call—not always doing anything except being available to their wants and needs. My kids can get their own cereal but can’t always pour the milk. They can get themselves dressed but sometimes get stuck in their shirt or need help tying their shoes. They can ask Alexa questions and request songs, but she doesn’t always understand them because of garbled words or particularly loud levels of background noise—welcome to my world, Alexa—so I need to be the interpreter. They can turn on the TV and usually navigate their way to Netflix, but if the TV input was changed or (gasp!) I watched something the night before under my profile, they need me get them to their menu. They can take multiple shits a day, but they still need help wiping or at least several reminders to wash their hands.
When I am at home and have a million things to do, I can’t do anything because kids are crawling all over me and needing all the things and asking all the questions. Or I am expected to watch all the things.
I was trying to read an email from a colleague recently after picking my kids up early from day camp and was scrambling to get to a place where I could be done with work for the afternoon and evening. I had been alone in the kitchen, but the second I reached for my phone a child appeared.
“Mama, watch this.” I watched said child clap her hands together.
“Nice,” I said and went back to reading.
“No, wait. I’m not done.” I looked up to see her twist her hands together a few times.
“Oh cool.” I tried to finish my task.
“There’s more!” OMFG. She then pushed her fingers out and made them wiggle.
“Fun!” DEAR GOD I JUST WANT TO FINISH READING THIS EMAIL.
“MAMA! I DIDN’T DO IT RIGHT!”
I sighed louder than I probably should have and eventually snapped at her after two more rounds of this.
“Can I please just finish reading this email?”
The answer was “no.” While not directly said, the “no” was implied when my daughter decided it was time to drag the stool to the pantry to get a snack she couldn’t safely reach.
It’s not that I don’t want to interact with my kids; it’s that I don’t want to feel like I have to constantly run interference. I am not a helicopter parent, but when three young kids are constantly flying around me, blades of nonstop requests cutting into my nerves, I feel like one as they pull me into their newly independent lives. They are learning to do things for themselves. They are learning how to manage frustrating tasks. They are learning how to pick themselves up after a physical or emotional fall. And, yes, of course I will always be there for them, but I need to recognize that this new phase is also hard for me.
With their newly gained bouts of independence, I have experienced independence too and have enjoyed it more than I realized. The freedom of not changing diapers, of not having to prepare every snack and meal, or of having to chase them through the house to pull clothes onto their wriggly bodies has been amazing. In that sense of relief, sometimes I forget that they are still little and need help in new ways.
As my kids go through some growing pains, I will too. Part of that pain is getting back a sense of autonomy for a fleeting moment only to have it taken away by a child who needs to show me how they can’t quite blow a bubble with their gum, but if I just watch for long enough they might end up accidentally spitting it on the floor.
Because it’s not enough to just watch the success, my job is to watch the mess and mess-ups too.